Q: I’ve heard a lot about mindfulness, but I’m skeptical that it will make any difference. What can mindfulness do for me?
A: First, it’s important to clarify what mindfulness in the context of Buddhist psychology is exactly. During our daily life we often use the word “mindful” to mean just be careful or more aware of what we are doing. For instance, as a child our parents may have told us to be mindful of keeping our mouths closed when chewing at the dinner table, or to be mindful of where we are going and not to bump into other people at the store. That’s one kind of mindfulness – a general kind of paying attention to what we are doing and the environment around us.
In a Buddhist context mindfulness means paying attention to very specific aspects of our conscious awareness. These include sensations in the body, feelings and emotional states, our thoughts and mental states. When we sit in mindfulness meditation we are training ourselves to pay attention to what is going on in the body and what is going on in the mind (sometimes referred to in Buddhism as mindbody). As a byproduct of mindfulness meditation we are training ourselves to notice when we are drifting off into daydreaming and getting lost in our thoughts. A recent landmark study found that we’re in daydream mode, what neuropsychologists call our default mode, over 50% of the time when we’re “awake”! If you’ve ever sat in meditation and drifted off into the details of some personal story as we all have done, and then suddenly noticed you’ve drifted off from your meditation, congratulations, you’ve taken a giant step in being mindful!
So how can all this help you with your mental health? Well, let’s look at two very common modern afflictions: anxiety and depression. When we are in an anxious state typically there’s a combination of uncomfortable feelings in the body like sweating, a racing heart, difficulty breathing, stomach pains and so on and there’s also a stream of anxious thoughts that go along with those feelings that generally involve some problems we expect to happen in the future. If we’re not being mindful, we tend to get swept up in that story as if what we’re imagining will happen in the future is already happening right now. However, if we’re being mindful of our body and what’s going in our mind we can use the skills we develop on the meditation cushion to notice what’s going on and keep ourselves from getting swept up in it. We can tell ourselves, “Oh that’s anxiety, that’s my heart beating fast. Oh there’s an anxious thought, that’s a story my mind is telling me. Maybe I should sit down and take a few slow deep breaths to help me calm down before I get carried away by it.” With mindfulness we can observe what’s going on within us and then make skillful choices with how we respond.
Similarly, when we are feeling depressed, we may feel tired or achy or lethargic in the body, we may also have negative thoughts about our situations, ourselves or things that have happened in the past. Again, with mindfulness we can notice how we are feeling in the body and we can notice the story we are telling ourselves and remind ourselves that it’s a story and not the present reality. We can use mindfulness to again make choices with how we will respond, so perhaps during depression we can notice what’s going on in our body, and perhaps despite feeling down we could go take a walk out in nature, exercise, call a good supportive friend, or talk to a therapist. Even in highly depressed states we can be mindful of small things during the day like washing the dishes or brushing our teeth. These small acts of mindfulness taken throughout the day can have a powerful effect and keep us from getting caught up in the negative rumination that has been associated with depression. The practice of mindfulness can always serve as a refuge for us in times of trouble.
W.C. Ark, PsyD
As always, if you’ve been struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues please seek a professional’s help. Blog statements not intended to substitute for professional advice.